My wife and I watch House Hunters International on HGTV—a habit that we love, even as it drives us practically insane. I say we “watch” it but it’s more than that…we participate in it, actively. We make our first order decision: which house we would choose, and then our second order: which house we think the featured couple will choose based on their declared preferences, as well as their reactions to the houses. We look at data and metadata.
And more often than not, our prediction is utterly wrong.
A similar dynamic happens in the workplace. At the office, I try to review the data and
the metadata, then anticipate the decisions of clients, co-workers, and suppliers. I’m sure you do, too. And perhaps, like me, you’ve concluded that decisions are made in a funny way. They’re clouded by all kinds of biases, and they’re not always conscious or explicable.
Understanding others’ decisions often starts with empathy—understanding their goals, priorities, and the internal mechanism for evaluating how likely options are to achieve those goals. You also need to look at their range of choices, consider what happens in the absence of a decision, and think about whether they’re looking for the perfect solution or simply one that will suffice. Then there are other parties to consider—how are they affected and whether they contribute to a decision. I’m probably leaving some elements out, but suffice it to say, it’s complicated but mappable.
When we receive a brief from a client, we frequently ask questions to verify the client’s intention, to confirm the things we believe, to eliminate uncertainties, and to reveal underlying logic or reasoning behind the initiative. The answers often lead us down an entirely different path than we anticipated upon our initial review.
In other words, a budget problem isn’t always a budget problem when examined carefully. And as Barry Schwartz argues in "The Paradox of Choice,"
reducing the options to a short list reduces anxiety and enables better decisions. I think this is why I prefer shopping at Trader Joe’s. They’ve done the heavy lifting for me by reducing the items in each category to one or two. I can grab tomato sauce and know it’ll be fine without being overwhelmed wondering which sauce might be just a little better than the others. In short, I know it will suffice and I don’t need to spend extra time worrying about the marginal utility of restaurant style sauce versus homestyle, or chunky spicy sauce versus hearty rustico sauce.
We should be doing this work for our customers, too.
If we truly understand their objectives, ask the right questions, discern their interests and map out the connections of influencers and stakeholders, then we can develop an intelligent plan to address the right problem with the relevant parties using the right sequence with an intelligent short list of solutions. James E. Schrager (Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business) has done a lot of work to help executives predict outcomes. Putting his principles into action requires a lot of prep, but we recently unlocked a success using these methods to arrive upon a lower-cost paper solution that had been rejected repeatedly over multiple months for various reasons. Eventually, we unlocked the interests behind the negative position, creatively mitigated them with the objecting party, and wrapped up the deal.
The more we put these principles into action, the more success we’ll achieve, not to mention the more frequently we’ll select the right house on House Hunters International. Who knew HGTV didn’t have to be a brainless mind-suck? Instead, think of it as a training ground to achieve Schrager’s trifecta: how to be a detective, how to build x-ray vision, and how to identify what dust will turn into gold. I wonder if Schrager watches House Hunters?